Version tested: PC
As the gentle autumnal slumber of the countryside descends upon Haywards Heath like a welcoming, thick duvet on a chilly morning, the animals begin their preparations for the long winter ahead. There's Mr Dormouse, toying with his nuts in the crisp sunshine. A badger coughs up just enough tuberculosis to get him through another winter.
And in a house at the end of a winding road, a man in his thirties sits in his pyjamas, occasionally punctuating the stillness of nature's fragile symphony by screaming the rudest word in the dictionary. Coleridge weeps, and the squirrels become restless...
It's a fitting time of year to release TrackMania 2: Canyon, a game in which the skies are an ocean blue and prairie clouds hang low in the sky. Cold, fresh and breezy, it's a liberating environment upon which to unleash the imaginations of a community hardened by the devilish tracks crafted since the release of TrackMania nearly eight years ago.
Alongside the new environment, developer Nadeo has boldly made a radical departure for the car physics of this tricksy stunt racing series. It's divisive on paper, but a design that fits the sequel's setting perfectly; the skittish performing fleas of old have been replaced by something with a bigger bottom. It's a heavier, arcade style of handling, reminiscent of Ridge Racer, where letting go of the back end to power-slide into corners is the key to success. It's also a game that's now purely about the thrill of ghost-based racing rather than the puzzle and platform modes of old.
Around 60 official tracks are provided for the single-player game, segregated into five ranks of increasing difficulty. The names of the courses that form the progressively agonising solo campaign belie the joyful agony within. "A08" could only mean something to the people already playing (and it does) - although it's admittedly catchier than "The One Where You Want to Take Your PC Outside and Set Fire to It, Sobbing".
As is so often the case with TrackMania's craftier set-pieces, the track begins innocently enough with a gentle curve that ends with a descent into a series of hills, each one perfectly designed to land you at just the wrong angle for maintaining balance. There's a trick, of course - hit the first jump straight and you might just make it to the finishing line. Miss that first critical leap, or take the halfway acceleration strip badly, and you and your competitors will cascade around the race-track like the tin cans tied to a newly-wed's car.
Solo successes are rewarded with medals and points, giving players a sense of progression as they travel the road towards a more prestigious ladder ranking. In principle it should be compelling, but in practice it can be a somewhat confusing experience.
It's in exposing the competitive depth of the game to players that TrackMania 2 blunders into one of its few shortcomings. You can no longer use in-game currency to buy official time attempts (which count towards ladder rankings): you have to first unlock the Gold medal of each track. Once you've done that, a timer appears in the bottom-right of your screen, counting down the five minutes until the official record attempt can be made.
Along with myriad other fine details of the competitive game, these critical areas are simply never explained to players. Instead, it's left to the resourcefulness of the series' famously passionate community to provide the answers via wikis and patient forum responses. You'll get there in the end - and the excellent solo mode doesn't really suffer all that much as a result - but it's a frosty welcome for any newcomer.
Immediately accessible, on the other hand, are the joys of the multiplayer experience, where joining a match is near-instantaneous and the content on offer is endlessly varied by virtue of the track creator, the player hosting options, and the ability to jump straight into the server your friends are playing on. It's a system of gaming purity where no time is wasted hanging around in the lobbies of half-finished games. Once you're in, the game itself need never end as you work through a server's repeating playlist of tracks, freshly updated with the latest and greatest creations.
Even when playing with others, TrackMania 2 is a shared exercise in joyful self-flagellation. The pressure is internal and intense, the feeling of inadequacy crushing. As with snooker, you lose a match not just through your opponent's superiority, but because you screwed up and gave them the opportunity to win in the first place.